Health A-Z

Lou Gehrig’s Disease

Clinical Definition

Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is a progressive neuromuscular disease marked by degeneration of the motor nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Named after the famed baseball player who retired from the sport in 1939 due to ALS, it involves the wasting away of muscles, including those that control swallowing and breathing, and may eventually lead to death. No cure exists at present, but there are possible treatments.

In Our Own Words

Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after a famous baseball player affected in the 1930s, is also known medically as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The condition is a degenerative disorder of the nervous system and causes the motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord to degenerate over time. As the disease progresses, these neurons can no longer send impulses to the muscles, so the muscles start to waste away and weaken.

Most common is sporadic ALS, in which the cause is not known; this occurs in about 90 percent of those affected. A smaller percentage has familial ALS, in which there is a family history and a chance of inheriting the condition. Over time, ALS can make movement difficult, as well as speaking and swallowing.

There is no cure, but there are possible treatments, and newer insights into the genetics of ALS and a dedicated national ALS research effort have given people hope. More recently developed medications may help to modify the course of disease in some people. Medications can also help with muscle cramps, excess saliva and other problems; physical therapy can also ease muscle cramps. Diet changes can help if swallowing is difficult, and speech therapy can help maintain verbal skills.

Symptoms and Side Effects

  • Leg or arm weakness
  • Speaking problems
  • Swallowing problems
  • Stiff muscles or muscle cramps
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